David Liss’s new novel, set in an America where financial collapse is imminent, teems with double crosses, political intrigue, concealed identities, blackmail, spies, and sex scandals. The stock market is on a roller-coaster ride, and brokers on the trading floor reek of panic and floppy sweat.
Welcome to 1792.
In his fourth novel, The Whiskey Rebels, Liss moves from the European setting of his previous historical novels to explore a frontier America where determined patriots plot to bring about the collapse of the new Bank of the United States, the brainchild of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. While this attempt to destroy the bank is fictional, the financial panic of 1792 was real, as was a controversial “whiskey tax.” A year earlier, Hamilton had convinced Congress to assume the states’ debt from the war by approving a tax on distilled spirits.
The whiskey tax had been approved by Congress as a simple means of helping fund the Bank of the United States. What better way to raise revenues, it had been argued, than to tax a luxury, and a harmful one at that, that many enjoyed? Let the men who would waste their time with strong drink pay for the economic growth of the new nation.
The tax eventually led to a full-scale uprising by owners of small distilleries — mainly in western Pennsylvania — who felt they were being unfairly assessed a fluctuating fee while larger distillers were only charged a flat rate. Civil protest led to armed rebellion in 1794, and President George Washington invoked martial law to quell the violence.
The Whiskey Rebels focuses not on the bloody events in western Pennsylvania but instead on the equally treacherous financial chaos that played out in Philadelphia and New York two years earlier. In his biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow described the tenuous economic bubble facing the new Republic: “Buoyed by credit, the prices of government and bank securities soared to a peak in late January 1792, exceeding any sane levels of valuation?.Then euphoria turned to doubt and doubt to despair as shares began a precipitate five-week slide.” Surely, Liss’s nostrils flared at the scent of collapsing markets — this was exactly the kind of scenario made for him.
Liss has a well-earned reputation for writing diligently researched novels that chart the beginnings of our complex and often corrupt financial system. A couple of centuries have done little to change the way greedy bureaucrats try to manipulate the economy. When reading novels like Liss’s 1999 A Conspiracy of Paper or The Whiskey Rebels, it’s not hard to imagine his characters in Armani suits, screaming into cell phones while gesticulating wildly on the exchange floor. Physically, the Wall Street of today looks nothing like the stock market of yesteryear: “ll real business was transacted in nearby taverns and inns — the trade in government issues, securities, and bank shares transpired in public houses.” Back then, Philadelphia was the center of finance, and trade was conducted in coffeehouses where brawling traders got into shouting (and shoving) matches. Each man, Liss writes, had a clerk at his side whose pen “moved with such rapidity that ink sprayed in the air like a black rain.”
This is the world in which Ethan Saunders, a former captain during the Revolutionary War, suddenly finds himself a pawn in the game to destroy Hamilton’s bank. Once “the cleverest spy of his day” who worked for Washington during the war, Saunders now lives in disgrace, stumbling from tavern to tavern in Philadelphia. An accusation of treason once besmirched his name and cost him his reputation and his fianc?e, Cynthia Pearson. As the novel opens, Saunders is hired to find Cynthia’s missing husband, a man who has unwisely invested in inflated securities. He soon finds himself embroiled in a deep and far-reaching intrigue.
Saunders’ adventures are intertwined with the story of Joan Maycott, wife of another Revolutionary War hero and aspiring novelist in the vein of Jane Austen. After Joan and her husband move to the wilderness of western Pennsylvania and establish a successful whiskey distillery operation, tragedy strikes, and Joan finds herself caught up in the rebels’ cause. Like Saunders, Joan often pauses to inject a dose of moralizing into the plot: “We were a land where cleverness and ingenuity bled quickly into chicanery and fraud. How easily, I thought, in an untamed land did the steady energy of ambition become the twitchy mania of greed.”
Likewise, when someone asks Saunders, “What drives a man to a wealth that will crush all others?” he replies, “It is the dark side of liberty.”
At times, long paragraphs of dialogue come across like dry pages from a Federalist tract. At other times, history seems to overwhelm the novel, and the action slows for expostulation on early American finance and trade. The history lesson is necessary, however, because the plot — that of the real Whiskey Rebellion and of the novel — is thick and tangled. Think of Liss as the kind of history professor who keeps his lectures lively simply by his passion for the primitive history of stocks and bonds.
As his other books have shown, Liss’s forte is filling his pages with period details that come off the page with the pop of an ember snapping in the hearth. Here, for example, is how Joan describes the first sip of her husband’s new recipe for whiskey:
I’d had whiskey before, in quantities I would not have credited in my former life, but here was something entirely different. It was darker, I saw by the light of the fire, amber in color and more viscous. And its flavor — it was not merely the sickly sweet heat of whiskey, for there was a honey taste to it, perhaps vanilla and maple syrup and even, yes, the lingering tang of dates.
By so effectively transporting us into the past, Liss also brings history forward. Everything old is new again, he seems to be saying, while advising us to keep a nervous eye on the ticker scroll running across CNN. In the end, as one character notes in the novel, the rebels’ plot is not about the bank: “It’s about averting chaos, riot, and bloodshed and another war of brother against brother. This country is a house of cards, and it will not take much to bring it down.” Bellwether words indeed for today’s stockbrokers.